17 “Between Scilla And Cariddi”

The streets of bedraggled Reggio are still deserted. Gino parks on a cobblestone street near a piazza in the historic center. Chimes sound from nearby. Only a few lonely looking persons are visible on the piazza. From a side street echo faint sounds of music. A green grocer on a corner displays a few pale zucchini and a couple of purple eggplants. Silent women stand around the stalls. Stray poultry peck fruitlessly at the cobbles. Two dogs hanging around look lazily aggressive. The bigger one creeps toward me, probably smelling my fear. I walk closer to the Gino and Edoardo until the menacing canine gives up. Our footsteps reverberate off the thick stone walls that I suspect conceal a lifestyle different from anything I’m familiar with. What I imagine are the town’s usual colors have faded into a lifeless summery brown like the sands of Reggio’s filthy beaches lapped by polluted water.
Gino ignores the present crowding and crushing him. His very life—his past too—seems to languish in the still air. What kind of a past could a man like him have while his present couldn’t possibly hold any promises of future reward? It saddens me that I don’t know Gino’s reality. But how little we ever know about others. Like mine, his past is invisible. He must sometimes yearn for a return to what once was, a ‘make-Reggio-great-again’ kind of thing, which he must know was never anything special at all. His nostalgia for that past should have died when his present began but it seems to hang on. I can understand that. I see his dejected air and believe I understand that his fear that his former better life, now cornered in the darkest recesses of his memory like a feared disease, will never return. The process has sharpened his repressed anger at his native land. Uncertainty and threat have become his new present while his recent past fades out of his memories.
We slink through the narrow streets of the old town. Here and there in places where the sun has found its way to the cobblestones, sagging bougainvillea around a ground floor window struggles for survival. Vases holding dried plants are cracked and faded. The atmosphere is that of a dying city. People have given up trying to save it from the corruption and organized crime and dark political powers no one understands. We round a corner and stop in front of a small building that I think is a deconsecrated chapel. Hammering sounds are audible from within. A Mercedes 500 is parked on the sidewalk in front.
“Strange,” Gino says, pushing open the cracked door, “this place is usually barred.”
He enters, nervous and agitated. “I used to come here often, a social center then … until the city government cracked down on it, suspecting some political conspiracy … perhaps a cell of Reds. Local police know what this place is becoming—a political meeting hall … but have reported nothing.” Gino whispers that we are looking at a rehearsal of a theatrical group but that the NSP party officials up on the stage want to charge them for appropriation of public property and use it as a pretext to crack down on any kind of public meetings.
Edoardo snickers.
Gino and I stand in the rear and watch Edoardo move forward. On one side of the low stage stand a long plastic table and several chairs. A row of seats have been ripped from the wall and placed facing the front, behind which there are some ten rows of benches and chairs. When a flute sounds, a middle-aged woman wearing a dirty smock stands up on center stage and begins reciting. My eyes fix on electoral placards hanging across the back wall of the stage. Along the sidewalls of the make-shift theater, political streamers droop to the floor. Two tables near the door are loaded with stacks of brochures.
Edoardo steps up onto the stage. Gino and I follow a few steps behind. The workers wearing black overalls stop hammering and stare at him, huge in his jungle attire. The music stops. Someone leads the woman to the wings. Two men in jackets and ties holding notebooks and pencils turn toward us. A squad of three men dressed in the ritual black stand to one side, nudging each other and snickering.
“The shit is flowing like lava from Mount Etna,” Gino mutters.
“You mean from the Aspromonte,” I say, glancing meaningfully at Edoardo. “Gladio! Never thought to meet one of its soldiers down here.” Gino grins weakly. His visit here in the social center must be an act of nostalgia. Maybe he thought he would find here a fragment of his past, from times when people did normal things. He must have thought if things here were still the same, not all was lost.
“What the fuck is going on here?” Edoardo suddenly shouts from near the stage. Silence echoes through the hall. “This was once our social club. Before that it was a church. Now it’s closed.”
“Right! This is no longer public property,” one of the men in civvies says weakly.
Edoardo waits.
The other, a young guy, with short slicked down hair and a wide red necktie, is wearing a black armband inscribed with the letters N.S.P. in white. “It belongs to the National Socialist Party now,” he says.
“And what do your Separatist friends say about closing this cultural center?” Edoardo taunts. “This place belonged to the people.”
The young man with the armband looks at him uncertainly, shuffles the papers in his hand, and mutters, “Who cares what they think?”
Edoardo moves toward center stage and stops in front of the two men. Calmly he examines each, as if undecided how to react. Then, in a soft voice, he says, “I’m going to report this to the police, then we’ll see.”
“We are the police,” red tie says, now aggressively.
“Then why don’t you ticket that car parked outside on the sidewalk?” When the other doesn’t answer, Edoardo looks into the man’s eyes and for some reason seems to feel sympathy for him; he seems to know the pompous little man is a coward.
“And what’s your name?” Edoardo asks one of the NSP men, a tall, slim youth standing near him.
“Gaetano Bolzoni. Why?”
“You’re a decent looking kid. What are you doing with this gang of hoodlums?”
“Just making a living. You have to work somewhere.”
“He’s a fucking sissy,” interjects a big mean-looking guy.
Edoardo turns to the obvious bully of the group. “And what’s yourname, if I may ask?” he asks the man sweetly.
“Cesare Pinelli! What’s it to you?” the other says with a snarl.
“And where might you be from, Cesare?” Edoardo asks, now syrupy. I grin as I write the name in my notebook, certain that more action is to come.
“Palermo,” the other retorts. “And I know how to take care of you.”
“Cesare, you’re a real sneaky guy … a bully too.” Edoardo says. “But you’re also a coward. Oh, oh, Gino, Gael, we’d best get the fuck out of here before they beat us up too. Cowards are dangerous … you never know what they’ll do next,” he says facetiously as a parting salute to the three men in black, before whirling and slamming his huge fist into the bully’s belly. The big guy bends double and collapses in a heap. Edoardo stands over him for a moment waiting for a reaction. Only moans sound from the man coiled at his feet.
Back on the street, we turn a couple of corners and stop in front of the cathedral and chat about what had happened. “You know, I’m always amazed at the differences between people everywhere,” Edoardo  says. “I see it immediately. You can see that guy Cesare shooting off his mouth like he did is an evil person, yet right beside him stands that kid, Gaetano. You look at him and you see innocence. Simply graceful, the innocence in the way he looked at me. Crazy! And to think we all come from the same origins! Or actually I don’t know where we come from.”
He looks at me as if wanting to hear how I would respond to his ruminations.
“Years ago, I lived in Germany,” I begin hesitantly, uncertain as to what I want to say on the question of good and evil. “I remember a story I read by a German writer named Heinrich von Kleist. The story is about a marionette theater like one I used to go to in Munich. It’s like a miniature opera house. I went to see the magic performed there. I’ve always wondered how they make the puppets’ movements so graceful. The more lightly they touch the stage boards, the more graceful they appear. Puppets just graze the boards or don’t touch them at all. At that point the writer introduced a bear into his story in which no puppets appeared. The narrator, an expert fencer, relates how he faced a chained bear which he was dared to try to touch with his rapier. The bear parried each of his thrusts with the slightest of movements and didn’t react at all to his feints. Its every movement was graceful, free of wasted movements. A studied grace.”
“So what does the story mean?” Edoardo asks, leaning closer toward me and peering into my eyes.
“Well, Kleist said that grace appears most easily and perhaps secretly in people and animals and organic forms that are unaware of their grace … or that grace is a consciousness which those without that grace cannot grasp. His point, I think, is that in the puppet or in a god, grace is the same as goodness.”
“God?” Edoardo says, as if alarmed. “You said God. My mother who was very religious had her favorite bible quotes for most everything. She spoke a lot about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I never understood when she said that God knows that the day we eat of the tree of knowledge our eyes will be opened and we too will be like gods, That we will know good and evil, she said.”
“So what’s wrong with that?” I interject, examining the cobbles under my feet. “Aren’t we a little like gods after all?… now that we know that God is dead?”
“God is dead?! … Well, I asked about good and evil because I’d  just had the thought that if that guy Cesare were a bit less mean, I could pity him,” Edoardo says.  “Yes, definitely, he needs pity.”
I look up at him, astonished. And wait for more. He looks as if he wants to add something but instead he turns away and starts back toward the Ford. By now I’m coming to understand that when one hardened man feels pity for another like himself … that it seems to count for much more than the pity of those who only preach pity. Edoardo made me feel this truth.
A blue police car is parked just in front of Gino’s old Ford, with a ticket hanging under a windshield wiper.